Dispelling Some Myths: Democracy's Roots
Updated: Aug 22, 2021
Ancient Athens in the 5th-century BC is often held to be the birthplace of democracy. The idea, however, was not unique to Athens. Other city-states (poleis, sing.polis) also adopted the principle of giving their citizens the right to decide on the issues facing them, but none are as well documented as Athens. So, for most western democracies it is to ancient Athens that they look for inspiring modern government. But how much would we recognise of Athenian democracy?
The ancient Greeks were particularly concerned with fundamental questions about who should rule and how? Should sovereignty (kyrion) lie in the rule of law (nomoi), the constitution (politea), officials, or the citizens? Such questions still exercise us today.
Governance in the world of the ancient Greeks, or Ellás (Ἑλλάς; Eng: 'Hellas') as they called it, took extraordinarily diverse forms and, across different city states and over many centuries, political power could rest in the hands of individuals or in a select few, or in every citizen. Some city-states changed the kind of government from one type to another.
Monarchy A monarchos (μονάρχης), from the words monos (μόνος) meaning "one", and archos (ἄρχων) meaning 'leader, ruler or chief', was a single, absolute ruler - a 'monarch' as we would understand the term today.
In the Greek world, monarchies were rare and were often only distinguishable from other forms of rule by a single person when the hereditary ruler was more benevolent and ruled in the genuine interest of his people. Famous monarchies included Macedonia and Sparta. although the latter had a system of two kings.
Not absolute monarchs, the two Spartan kings did, however, hold great power when one or the other led the Spartan army in times of war. In peacetime the kings were kept in check by the ephors (ephoroi) who were themselves elected by the assembly. There were five ephors each of whom held office for just one year. During that time they had power over most areas of civic life and could appoint and check on all the other public officials.
Aristocracy Aristokratia (ἀριστοκρατία) is formed by two Greek words: aristos (ἄριστος) meaning 'excellent', and kratos (κράτος) meaning 'power'. To the ancient Greeks aristokratia, from which we get the word aristocracy, meant 'rule of the best' qualified citizens. In later times, aristocracy was usually seen as rule by a privileged group of leading families (the aristocratic class).
Oligarchy Oligarkhia (ὀλιγαρχία) is rule by a select group of individuals, sometime small in number, but could include much larger groups. The term derives from the words olígos (ὀλίγος) meaning 'a few' and archo (ἄρχω) meaning 'to rule or to command'. For the ancient Greeks, any system which excluded power from the whole citizen-body and did not involve a single ruler was described as an oligarchy. Oligarchies were perhaps the most common form of city-state government. To name but two, Megara and Thebes were states that had oligarchic governments.
Much as with an aristocracy, oligarkhia meant that power usually rested with a small, select group who thought themselves superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society. This meant that control rested with a few rich prominent families who remained in power by passing their influence from one generation to the next.
Tyranny A Tyrannos(τύραννος) was originally one who illegally seized power and controlled a city-state, or polis. Tyrants were sole rulers of a state who had taken power in an unconstitutional manner, often murdering their predecessor. Greek tyrants, however, were not necessarily evil rulers as the word implies today, they simply looked after their own interests.
The Greek writers Plato and Aristotle defined a tyrant as 'one who rules without law, looks to his own advantage rather than that of his subjects, and uses extreme and cruel tactics - against his own people as well as others'. For Athens, the ultimate tyrants were the Persian kings Darius and Xerses. The demonising of these two 'great kings' may have been the drivers for demokratia.
Democracy Finally we arrive at demokratia (δημοκρατία) or 'rule of the people' where dêmos (δῆμος) means 'people' and kratos (κράτος) means 'strength' or 'power'. Although often credited with the birth of democracy (demokratia), Athens was not the only state to establish this political system: Argos, Syracuse, Rhodes, and Erythrai all had something similar. Regardless, two and a half thousand years ago democracy was a pretty new idea that enabled all eligible citizens to have an equal say in the decisions that affected their lives.
The Athenian Assembly The Assembly (ekklesia) of Athens met at least once a month on a small, rocky hill surrounded by parkland with a large flat platform of eroded stone set into its side, and by steps carved on its slope. Known as the Pnyx, the space could accommodate 6,000 citizens (pictured right). The Athenian assembly had four main functions: it made executive pronouncements (decrees, such as deciding to go to war or granting citizenship to a foreigner), elected some officials, legislated, and tried political crimes.
The flat stone platform was the bema, the 'stepping stone' or speakers' platform. From the speaker’s stone any citizen had the right to address the assembly, to debate matters of policy, and have their voice heard. As such, the Pnyx (Πνύξ, pronounced 'pnyks') embodies the principle of isēgoría (ἰσηγορία), or 'equal speech' the equal right of every citizen to debate matters of policy. The other two principles of democracy were isonomía (ἰσονομία), equality under the law, and isopoliteía (ἰσοπολιτεία), equality of vote and equal opportunity to assume political office.
The right of isēgoría (equal speech) was expressed by the presiding officer of the Pnyx assembly, who formally began each debate with the open invitation 'Tís agoreúein boúletai?' ('Τίς ἀγορεύειν βούλεται;') - 'Who wishes to speak?'
Critics of democracy, such as Thucydides and Aristophanes, pointed out that the demos could be too easily swayed by a good orator (public speaker) or by popular leaders (the demagogues) and get carried away with their emotions. Even so, much as today, the wealthiest, most influential, and the best speakers dominated the political arena both in front of the assembly and behind the scenes in private political meetings (xynomosiai) and groups (hetaireiai). Moreover, Athenian citizenship was not as all-encompassing as we would expect.
Only adult male Athenian citizens who had completed their military training as ephebes had the right to vote in Athens. Men under 20 years of age were therefore excluded. The percentage of the population actually participating in the government is estimated between 10% and 20% of the total number of inhabitants (it varied from the 5th- to the 4th-century BC). This excluded a majority of the population: slaves, freed slaves, children, women  and foreigners resident in Athens (μέτοικοι / métoikoi). Despite these restrictions, a body of 6000 citizens served as juries, meeting about half the days of the year, with each of the ten tribes of Athens providing its required share.
Attendance at the Assembly was voluntary, but not always. In the 5th-century BC public slaves, forming a cordon with a red-stained rope, herded citizens from the agora to the Pnyx. A fine was imposed on those who got the red on their clothes. A revised form of democracy was instituted in 403 BC after the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War. One innovation was the introduction of pay for Assembly attendance that promoted a new enthusiasm for Assembly meetings. Only the first 6000 citizens to arrive were admitted and paid, with the red rope now used to keep latecomers at bay.
Idiotai In Athens there was an expectation that the honourable citizen would play his active part in civic life. Like any given polis, citizens were related to one another by blood and so family ties were very strong. As boys, they grew up together in schools, and as men, they served side by side during times of war. They debated one another in public assemblies. They elected one another as magistrates. They cast their votes as jurors for or against their fellow citizens. In such a society, all citizens of the polis were intimately and directly involved in politics, justice, military service, religious ceremonies, intellectual discussion, athletics and artistic pursuits. To shirk one's responsibilities was not only rare but reprehensible in the eyes of the citizen. Greek citizens did not have rights, but duties and a citizen who did not fulfil his duties was socially disruptive. In the polis of Sparta, such a citizen was called 'an Inferior'. In Athens, a citizen who held no official position or who was not a habitual orator in the Assembly was branded idiotai.
And finally For the Greeks, the state was not an interfering entity which sought to limit one’s own freedom but an apparatus through which the individual could fully express his membership of the community. The regular turnover of elected officials, due to limited terms of office and the prohibition of re-election, meant abuse of power was kept in check and the rulers would in turn become the ruled. Many civic positions were short term and chosen by lot to ensure bribery was kept to a minimum. At times one wonders whether the frequent turnover of elected officials (thwarting career politicians) and involving a wider selection of the citizen body in positions of power are not a way forward. Anyway, after World War II modern ideas of democracy became dissociated from its ancient frame of reference. It ceased to be one of the many possible ways in which political rule could be organised becoming instead the only acceptable political system for an egalitarian society.
1. The Greeks or Hellenes (Έλληνες, Éllines) are an ethnic group native to Greece, Cyprus, Albania, Italy, Turkey, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, other countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. They also form a significant diaspora, with Greek communities established around the world. This was Hellas.
2. Women had limited rights and privileges, had restricted movement in public, and were very segregated from the men.